Thirty years ago, nine-year-old John O’Leary was rushed to the emergency room, while his family’s home continued to be ablaze. As he lay in a hospital bed, he frantically wondered if he was about to die. He had suffered burns covering 100 percent of his body and was given less than one percent chance of survival. Today, he is an in-demand speaker who shares his gift of perspective and passion with thousands worldwide and whose book “On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life” became a national #1 bestseller.
Michaela Haas: How did you get burned?
John O’Leary: When I was a little boy I saw some other kids in our neighborhood play with fire and gasoline. These boys would sprinkle some gasoline, light a match, and it would dance to life. I figured I could do that too. I waited until my parents were away and my three siblings slept inside our house, and made my way over to a 5 gallon container of gasoline in our garage. I started slowly pouring, thinking that it would spark to life. Instead, the flames ignited the whole canister and caused a massive explosion. It spilled 5 gallons of gasoline over my body, engulfed me in flames, and blasted me 15 feet against the far side of the garage. That happened on January 17, 1987.
How did you survive against all odds?
By all accounts, I should not have survived. I found myself with burns on 100 percent on my body, 87 percent were third degree. The deepest went all the way through the muscle to the bone. Burnt skin never grows back, you need a skin transplant, but the only place that was not severely burnt and where skin could be harvested was my scalp. It was nearly impossible. The mortality rates are calculated by taking the percentage of the body burned and adding the age, so my mortality rate was 109 percent. I was on my back in the ER, dying. The nurse said that I had absolutely no chance. That morning mom had the courage to ask me: “John, do you want to die?” And I thought about it for a moment and said, “Mom, I don’t want to die, I`m going to live.” That morning I had no idea it would be five months in the hospital, dozens of surgeries, amputations, therapy, but we were going to fight.
One of the things that surprised me is that as a young man you chose a career that was extremely physically challenging. Why did you decide to become a contractor?
I wanted to be my own boss. Yes, there were some physical challenges. We’re talking about a guy who cannot sweat anywhere on his body other than his face because my sweat glands were severely impacted by my burns, a guy who has no hands. I had to relearn to hold a pencil and struggled to learn to hold a steering wheel to drive, let alone a drill or a circular saw, or a 2x4 or bags of concrete. So, why would a guy who could barely do any of the things required for the job, choose this? Now, looking back, it was to prove again that there is nothing this little boy can’t do. Let me prove to you and the world that I am not broken, that I am completely whole and that I can do anything anybody else can do. When I was 22, I had no idea that was what I was doing. I just thought it was an entrepreneurial gig, but if we’re honest, there are always ulterior motives. In hindsight, it was a cry out, to say: I`m normal like you, watch me work.
At an event, someone asked you if you would like to travel back in time and undo that damage, and to everyone’s surprise, you said, no, you’d light that fire again. How come?
The fire was devastating and almost killed me, but it also made me into who I am today. Everything beautiful and enriching in my life today was born through the tragedy of those flames. The challenges led to character, formation of faith, compassion; it led to building my network, it led to where I went to university, which led to the chance encounter with my wife, it led me to my current work as a motivational speaker, so almost everything good in my life, when I reflect on it, leads back to the childhood fire. If I hadn’t been burnt, I wouldn’t have all the gifts galvanized because of it. It still blows me away that this is true.
How did you arrive at this realization?
Through three decades of reflection. It was not a quick process. All these years I did not want to speak about the accident, I was ashamed of my scars and I tried to hide my hands. But about eight years ago my mom and dad wrote a book, Overwhelming Odds (by Susan and Denny O’Leary), and in reading their story I saw more clearly my own. I realized for the first time this horrible tragedy that I had always run from and been embarrassed by, was in reality triumphant. On the cover of their book is a picture of me in a wheelchair, recently out of the hospital. I have scars all over, I wear a neck brace, it’s a horrible image in some regards, and yet, rather than seeing the brokenness that I always focused on, when I look at that boy’s image, there is joy, not just in his smile, but in his eyes. I came to see this image of the little boy completely differently, which allowed me to see the image of the man in the mirror completely differently. I also realized that I was not the only one who got burned. My parents and siblings also got burned and transfigured, figuratively. So I think tragedies and fires have ways of either pushing us apart or galvanizing and fortifying us, and for us, the fire brought us closer together.
Was there a specific turning point for you when you started to open up and share your experience?
The publication of my parents’ book allowed me to first turn to the mirror and embrace that reflection more positively, but it also freed me when a few months later I was invited to speak to a small group of Girl Scouts. I’m introverted and had never told anybody how I had been burned. Saying yes to these girls freed me to say yes to the next group and to the next group… Now I get to share this story all around the world, because of finally being able to embrace the scars, not as a tragedy, but as a triumph.
There is a lot of new research that shows that up to 90 percent of trauma survivors experience signs of posttraumatic growth, such as a new appreciation of life, deeper relationships, and deeper spirituality. Have you looked into the science?
I wouldn’t consider myself an expert in it, but I`m a practitioner of posttraumatic growth. You don’t need to be burned to experience growth, but you do need to experience some kind of challenge. Too frequently in life we try to protect our kids, our spouses, or our community from challenges. I think that’s a mistake. It’s how we ultimately grow. We need to be stretched and burned, so that we can grow.
Posttraumatic growth rarely happens on its own. We need support and the right methods to grow from a trauma. How can we support people to turn a traumatic experience into a growth process? When you look back, what was it that supported you the most?
First of all, I would suggest that all of us have been burned at one point in our life. We`ve all been burned by traumatic experiences, just to different degrees. They are opportunities for growth. I am naturally an optimistic person, especially when facing a difficult situation. Secondly, my family is awesome. I feel very fortunate with the network we have. What was the best thing people did for me? Their willingness to show up, whether to bring me baseballs or hand me chocolate shakes, but frequently, for me as a child, showing up just meant being present, not talking, not fixing, not solving, but being present with me. What worked well for me as a nine-year old still works well for me as a man: to be bold enough, when everybody else is too nervous to show up, that we can be there, as a source they can lean into if they choose to.
Also, I have a strong faith. When you have a strong faith in something bigger than right now, bigger than the hurdle in front of you, it allows you to take that hurdle because your eyes are set to something bigger on the horizon.
We have both been inspired by Auschwitz-survivor Viktor Frankl who says that when you know your why, you can endure any how. What’s your why?
Your why ought to be your mission statement for life. My why is: God demands it, my family deserves it, and the world is starved for it.